Friday, May 30, 2008

Do we need to worry?

Isaiah 49.8-16a
1 Corinthians 4.1-5
Matthew 6.24-34
Today's Old Testament reading from Isaiah includes two striking images. The first is a feminine image - comparing God's faithfulness and care to that of a nursing mother. What mother, asks the prophet, would abandon her tiny baby? But, of course, it does happen occasionally - whereas God's love for us is so profound and tender that he - or she, perhaps - will never abandon us.

The passage concludes with the second striking image, which is a word from the Lord to the Prophet, "See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands."

Sometimes when I find myself with nothing to write on I write names or phone numbers on my hands. This is a technique which only works if I remember to transfer this vital information to a more permanent place before I next wash my hands! Often, as I dry my hands, and remove the last vestige of the data, I remember the funny moment in the first episode of Cold Feet when one of the characters has written the phone number of a girl he has met in the dust on his car windscreen, which is fine until it starts to rain!

When the Prophet says that God has inscribed our names - and indeed all the vital information about us - on the palms of his hands, I guess he is thinking of something more permanent than a biro. He must mean that the details are safely tattooed there. And, of course, tattooing would have been a much more painful and painstaking process than simply whipping out a pen. Not only that, but like the person who today gets the name of their lover tattooed on their body, it would have been a sign of real and lasting commitment.

The oracle means that God holds us close and cherishes everything about us. What a wonderful thought, especially given that Paul tells us - in the passage from his first letter to Corinth - that it is this same caring and compassionate God "who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart." How fortunate that this is a God who is clearly much more willing to commend us than to judge us!

When Jesus says that God's concern for human beings is greater than his care for the birds and wildflowers, which are in any case more than adequately provided for, he is not suggesting an anthropocentric view of creation in which we are superior to the other living creatures. He is simply asserting that we can, unlike the rest of the created order, enjoy a conscious and personal relationship with God.

This privileged intimacy and knowledge not only assures us that we really are loved by God, giving us the confidence not to worry unduly about tomorrow and its problems, but also brings with it the responsibility to share with God in the task of caring for the rest of creation. And herein lies the rub. What happens if we have not been caring properly for our planet and its other inhabitants but instead have behaved selfishly and destructively? What if we now risk upsetting the balance of nature through untimely global warming? Then our partnership with God will have broken down and it will no longer be true to say that the birds of the air are certain to be fed, or that the lilies of the field will always be clothed more gloriously than Solomon. In that situation it will become necessary, after all, to worry about the worries of our children and grandchildren as well as today's troubles. And, unfortunately, that situation has come to pass!

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